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31 Days of Halloween: Return of the Living Dead III

Published Friday, October 22, 2021 at 11:34pm

You can see what's coming as soon as they get back on the motorbike.

Two kids madly in love. He's just told off his father and they've ridden off into the sunset. An hour earlier, they used his Dad's ID badge to break into a military facility, and watched as technicians used the chemical agent 2-4-5 Trioxin to bring a corpse back to life. The thing screams and claws and eventually breaks free causing a certain amount of pandemonium and violence before being neutralized. That frothing, howling hunger isn't enticing, but when the motorcycle crashes he's the only survivor the path ahead is obvious.

It might not be the path a reasonable person would take, but the movies would be pretty dull if they only featured reasonable people.

This is Return of the Living Dead III, the third in a series of unofficial sequels to Night of the Living Dead. Look, I'll go through this quickly. Night of the Living Dead came out in the late '60s but was accidentally released without a copyright which put it into the public domain. A decade and some change later Dan O'Bannon (writer of Alien, among other genre classics) came along and made a tongue-in-cheek sequel (tongue-in-cheequel?) which went on to a solid "4 out of 5 stars" reputation. Then Return of the Living Dead Part 2 came out and underwhelmed everybody by retreading 80% of the Return of the Living Dead's plot. Critical reviews of III are mixed, but everybody agrees that it's better than expected because Part 2 set the bar so low.

I wasn't expecting a lot, namely because I didn't know anything about it.

So, Return of the Living Dead III begins with Curt (J. Trevor Edmund) and Julie (Melinda Clarke), who as mentioned above, are madly in love. I'm not sure what they expected out of the military facility, but while they're escaping they miss what's actually going on in the control room: the reanimated dead are to be deployed as weapons, but they are useless if they can't be controlled. To that end, two technologies for immobilizing the dead have been developed. Curt's dad has been the major proponent of one of them, and it has just proven unusable. He is taken off the project and reassigned. He and Curt will have to relocate, and soon.

At home, Curt is furious to hear this. They've been relocated several times and he's sick of it, especially now that he's found a serious girlfriend and taken up the drums, both things that his father hates. He tells daddy that he's staying here and takes off with Julie on his motorcycle. She wants to fool around, and he wants to not crash, and this is where you came in at the top of this post.

Reanimated, Julie is her old self, more or less. She can't feel pain, and she's ravenous but can't determine what she wants to eat. They go to a convenience store where a gang is hanging out around an arcade game. Julie grabs and begins scarfing an armful of Hostess products, and the gang comments on this which leads to a scuffle. Somebody shoots the shopkeeper, Julie bites the gunman, and Julie ends up eating some of the shopkeeper's brain.

Julie's condition, in case you couldn't tell, is rapidly worsening. She's fixated on her inability to feel pain, but discovers that extreme pain gets through, so she weaves wires through her skin and adorns herself with dozens of piercings in an attempt to feel whole again. Apparently it was elaborate enough to keep Melinda Clarke in the makeup chair for nine hours.

Anyway, the gang pursues them because the guy who got bitten is Not Alright in the way that happens to people who get bitten in zombie movies, and they want to know what the hell Julie has done to him. Julie and Curt are rescued by a river-dwelling vagrant. Meanwhile, the military are tracking them and plan to contain the problem...

Part of the reason I liked Return of the Living Dead III is that it almost considers taking half a step toward acknowledging the problem I have with all zombie movies, which is that physiologically speaking, zombies shouldn't work. There's always somebody in these movies who points out that the reanimated dead have no pulse, so... how are they walking around? This one at least brings up that Julie is actively deteriorating, and that her brain won't hold out for very long. Speaking of brains, it also addresses the reason zombies' craving for brains: apparently they need the electrical impulses in the neurons. Okay, I guess so.

Return of the Living Dead III was directed by Brian Yuzna whom I mostly know as Stuart Gordon's occasional producer. He's a director, too, though, and I have a bad habit of writing him off just because I didn't like Necronomicon very much. I was really paying attention this time, though, and he's got great sensibilities. The problem isn't Yuzna, it's just that Necronomicon is a really disappointing movie.

This movie, however, is great. It's a much more serious affair than the previous two Return of the Living Dead installments, but it's got everything you want from a zombie movie, plus a little love story. And as always, a small incident near the end of the movie causes everything to end in bloodshed and bedlam. That's the way to end a zombie movie; they can't end happily (Shaun of the Dead gets a pass), and to fade out as your main character breaks down in tears of relief after the resolution doesn't feel right, either. No, zombie movies have to go down kicking, preferably in flames. That's not a spoiler, it's just how things are done.

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